“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’” —Matthew 18:21-22
We’ve spent the last two weeks talking about Forgiveness. We established that forgiveness is a choice, for we know that God is not a tyrant commanding the impossible; and we defined Forgiveness as “releasing my right to be angry and/or bitter toward a person for the wrong they committed and releasing the outcome to God.”
We have addressed what forgiveness looks like in response to an offence, but what happens when the wound in question is not as a result of an event, but rather of a behavior. What happens when you can’t even count the number of times you have been wronged? The Rabbinical teaching of the day stated that forgiving someone three times was sufficient. Peter knew of Jesus tendency to require more than the other Rabbis, and so tendered the guess of seven times. After all, seven was the number of “completion.” Surely forgiving someone seven times would be enough.
“I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Some translations read “seventy times seven.” The extravagance shown in Jesus’ answer does not provide us a number at which we are free to stop forgiving, but rather gives us insight into the heart of God. Jesus answer to Peter, communicated to him, and us, “your extravagance in forgiveness (seven times) does not equal mine.” His answer revealed that Peter’s question, and ours, was incorrect. By asking, “how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?” we really mean, “How long do I have to put up with this behavior before I can harden my heart? When can I start getting angry and bitter? When can I start inflicting my own brand of punishment?”
To those questions, this is the answer that Jesus gave to Peter. “I want you to form a habit of forgiveness. I want forgiveness to be the first thing in your mind when someone sins against you. I want bitterness to be a strange emotion to you. And I want you to trust me to heal your wounds, and to execute righteous justice on my time.”
After all, isn’t that how Jesus treats us? He has forgiven us of our sin, but we still lose our tempers, we still fall back into our bad habits, we still struggle with our addictions, and we still cave to our old temptations. God is slow to anger, he doesn’t hold grudges or harbor bitterness toward us. He forgives, and forgives, and forgives, and forgives. May we all learn to forgive like Jesus.
Homework this week: Write or revisit a list of names of those whom you have not forgiven, and write their offense next to their name. Pray that God would give you the grace to forgive. Then, one by one, choose to forgive.
Below is a forgiveness template that I have found useful. Imagine that person in the room with you and address the offender out loud.
(Name), you hurt me very deeply when you X____. But (Name), by an act of my will, I choose to forgive you for X_____. God, would you forgive me for holding onto this offense for so long. Help me to walk in the freedom that true forgiveness offers me.